The Velvet Underground. Complete Released Works. Part Four
"White Light/ White Heat" and "The Velvet Underground", the band’s second and third LPs, were always the kind which you experience in the fullest sense of the meaning. When you’d finally recovered after playing the bastard to death, you’d inevitably create a mix tape, if not two.
From one perspective, then, the Velvets’ LPs are all seriously flawed; from another perspective (mine) any flaws they may have are simply the representation of the kind of genius several individuals can create, where the creation reaches far, far above anything we do individually. But like I say, approach with caution. And have your mixtape equipment handy.
At this point I must also mention two 1980s compilations of Velvets recordings. These tracks turn up on the deluxe boxes, and on "Peel Slowly"; the records were "VU", and "Another View". Many people prefer the first to the second; as lost Velvets albums, however, they’re a damn sight more balanced than "White Light/ White Heat" and "The Velvet Underground".
The Super Deluxe Edition of "White Light/ White Heat" has the least number of discs of these boxes, a mere three: the stereo version, plus seven out-takes or alternate mixes; the mono version, with four variant mixes or versions; and a live gig, with five of the songs officially unreleased.
My mum bought me the LP for my birthday in 1980, and she bought me this box for Christmas many years later. Thanks, Mum. The Velvets always seemed so hard to find in the new record shops; they’d hardly ever turn up in playable condition second-hand either. We were on a quest, a journey. We didn’t need to read or play "Game of Thrones", we were the protagonist, Childe Robert to the Dark Tower came…
So, having heard the stereo version for several years, naturally I’m going to want to pounce on Disc Two, the mono version, with the volume dial far over to the right.
However, I’m going to start with the live disc, which finds the band six months further down the line, long-separated from Nico (although "The Velvet Underground and Nico" has been in the shops for barely two months), five months away from recording "White Light/ White Heat", and with a swag of new songs. The recording is at The Gymnasium, NYC, 30th April 1967, and only two of these songs have officially turned up (on "Peel Slowly").
Disc Three, then … "Booker T" is a simple, romping ‘50s-esque rockin’ jam, and it’s here that we can find some of Reed and Morrison’s real roots: dirty ‘50s rock’n’roll. However… it ain’t nuthin’ like the real Booker T., no it isn’t. First, Reed’s guitar dances and lopes all around the chugging rhythm, free and unfettered. It’s an education just to hear this, occasional feedback squalls included. Second, of course, Moe’s thundering, chugging drums, dispensing with all those unnecessary frills, is like standing in front of a train; with Cale on bass we have the modern rock ’n’ roll band. Again, very few bands were playing anything like this at the time; it seems almost quaint now that there was a time when the purpose of a song seemed to be the chorus or guitar solo.
"I’m Not a Young Man Anymore" is another of Reed’s forgotten straight-forward rock songs; by now the audience must be groovin’ along happily, sitting on the floor like old Buddhas as they used to do. Maybe a few hippy ladies swirling about. The real thing which gets your attention is, again, that thunderous racket Moe’s making, with Reed’s smart guitar in lock-step with his vocals. This is a forgotten song, remember; it was never recorded on any of the LPs. A lot of bands would give their eye-teeth to have written it; hell, for some bands it would be a career highlight.
The sound, by the by, is pretty good, capturing the band on fine attacking form. Not brilliant (as it occasionally fades in and out) but overall, it’s a better sound than the Valleydale recording made six months earlier. This is the crunching sound that the Velvets were developing alongside their fragile pop sensibility. The next song, ‘Guess I’m Falling In Love’ is a weird hybrid; somewhere between that delicate popular pop framework and this sort’ve assaultive braggadocio (dammit, there’s a fade down here too).
Right now, if you haven’t figured it out already, this is a very different outfit to the one six months ago. It’s far more outwardly rock’n’roll, and far more aggressive in some ways. Less so in others, since it’s considerably less other-worldly. In fact, if the tape hasn’t been edited to remove pauses and audience noises, the band crash from one song to another so fast that the audience is either indifferent, or (more likely, I suspect) rather gob-smacked.
"I’m Waiting for The Man" starts in almost immediately, it’s opening sequence somewhat faster than I’d expected (the whole song eventually halts after less than five and a half minutes), and Cale on ramming, shoving organ. The band seem in a somewhat ferocious mood tonight, and Reed seems to be far too close to the mic, his expulsions thudding into our ears, but they don’t seem in the mood to make this one wig-out.
"Run Run Run" is being counted in before the notes for "…Man" have died away, and there they are, hammering at us again (with the by-now-familiar occasional fade outs and Reed’s thumping exhalations). "Run…" must be a grizzly old favourite with the band by now, and it’s another treat to hear Reed work with his guitar, shoving up the feedback in such careful, calculated manner, then using the thing as a platform - not just once, but several times, also improvising lyrics. (You remember the English Reid brothers, pop meets feedback and Nick Cave’s old hair and stage-moves? sorry, chaps, but you ain’t no relation).
"Run…" is another highlight; the Velvets are so precise in their speed here … which rather makes me wonder, but who cares, really. Fuck this is good, being here under the headphones with the Velvets filling my skull with their bad baby tantrum voodoo. Infantile and sublime and it bangs to a halt.
"Sister Ray" seems to start almost immediately, more dynamic in tone, high in squall, almost laid-back in it’s rhythm. But not in the playing. This is the song where you can hear the band enter into … I suppose a little of what drove them all: competitiveness. When Cale’s bass suddenly comes to the fore, and you can imagine Reed’s baleful gaze… another fade down is slightly frustrating but we’re well used to them by now, and follow the trail of bread-crumbs down into the murk where Gandalf the Reed and some ancient Welsh mining monster are grappling for purchase.
Different lyrics to the "White Light/ White Heat" version again, naturally; and this version goes on a bit longer than the LP version. I love the way Reed is now far more confident in the bestial thing he’s leading now; effortless changes of tempo and tune, he sounds like he’s having the time of his life. It rather sounds like Cale has strapped on the viola again during this one. God knows what that racket is alongside Reed about two-thirds the way through. And as for the final rhythmic ending, it’s extraordinary, really.
"The Gift" is one song I never thought they’d have done live, for some reason. Yet here it is, the music quite different to the lp version; it’s more beguiling for one thing. And Cale’s viola is sometimes unbearable. It’s fabulous, and I’d argue a much better version that the one on "White Light/ White Heat". By now the band seem to have worn out their frenetic energy and are reverting to what they do best: intimidate. You want a comparison? Try: a hovering ruin glaring at you so hard your fillings start to melt.
As with the Valleydale live discs, I find myself wondering just how people felt as they left the venue. Bludgeoned about the head with a sock full of pennies (or a couple of telephone books)? Hungover with frightening but sober clarity?
Oh, this is gloriously ugly in places, gloriously symphonic in others.
If you can get past the occasional fade outs, you’ll find Disc Three is a marvel. Sure, we’d all love it to have been better recorded, but better this way than none, I say (and thousands agree).
For contextual comparison, wouldn’t you have loved to have seen the Doors play the same gig as the Velvets, if only to see which band you’d enjoy most..? What were the Doors up to in ’67?
Nah, I’m just fooling with you, I really couldn’t give a shit.
Wouldn’t mind a time-machine though. Just to look and listen (and record properly). Not to touch or interfere.
For those looking to build an alternate version of the lp from the "additional materia", well, there are no significant alternate versions of two of the songs, and only one alternate version of "Sister Ray" (live) and "The Gift" (you can choose between a live version, an isolated vocal version and an isolated musical version). Ultimately, along with the five song demos which turned up on "Peel Slowly", the power is in your hands not so much to compile an alternative view of White Light/ White Heat, but what these boxes don’t - and therefore can’t - do, which is to put together an entirely different way of hearing the Velvets.
These lost songs from 1967, blended without the esoteric (such as "The Gift"), create a very different picture of the band.
Onto Disc One (Stereo Version).
In the context of its day and period, and the flow of the band, "White Light/ White Heat" is one ornery, cantankerous prick of an album. It’s almost as if they’d determined to spit in the faces of passers-by. Oh, yeah, and they went with Warhol’s bright idea for the cover: entirely black. Well, that showed Warhol completely "got" the band; but showed he had absolutely no commercial sense (not in 1967, for fuck’s sake).
In 1993, Tom Ferguson in Vox described "White Light/ White Heat" as "resulting in some of the loudest, most perplexing and downright nasty rock’n’roll ever recorded". David Fricke, who did the liner notes here, says much the same thing, but I prefer Ferguson’s description. Fricke also did the "Peel Slowly" notes; both sets of notes are well-informed and add plenty to the myth as well as the factual story of the Velvets. However, I don’t much like Fricke’s style, I find it irritating - and that goes for all of his notes. Maybe it’s a style thing. The pics and other visuals in these boxes are really cool and make up for it though.
I remember the first time I heard "WL/WH"; I thought I knew what I was in for after the first song. But no. This was … in the same way as Funhouse, a unique creation, and one which is an artwork in and of itself. Beyond that, of course, some songs you’d put on a compilation tape, others you wouldn’t because they belong more properly on the lp itself. Call me strange.
What was in the top ten when the lp was released at the end of January, 1968?
1 ‘Judy in Disguise (with Glasses)’ - John Fred and his Playboy Band
2 ‘Chain of Fools’ - Aretha Franklin
3 ‘Green Tambourine’ - The Lemon Pipers
4 ‘Woman, Woman’ - The Union Gap
5 ‘Bend Me, Shape Me’ - The American Breed
6 ‘Hello Goodbye’ - The Beatles
7 ‘Spooky’ - The Classics IV
8 ‘Daydream Believer’ - The Monkees
9 ‘I Heard it Through the Grapevine’ - Gladys Knight and the Pips
To say that the Velvets wouldn’t seem like a good fit in the top ten right now would seem to be one of those understatements which are so obvious they should never be uttered…
When "White Light/ White Heat" comes slamming out of the speakers for the first time, it is a huge, unexpected shock. I was lucky in the sense that I’d already heard the first lp, but I still remember the utter amazement, the stunned notion that songs could be like this, when I first heard the lp at a friend’s place in, I think, mid-1976. And that, of course, was eight years after its initial release, when Lou Reed was an established anti-establishment rock star, but a star in the sense that few people seemed to have any real idea where he’d sprung from. That plunking bass at the end which seems so … wrong but so right. One assumes this was the only take. Fricke’s notes describe "Cale’s frantic, repetitive bass playing leaps forward in an out-of-time spasm". "I’m pretty sure it broke down,’ Cale says of his part, "because my hand was falling off.’’
"The Gift" is often described as the album’s most difficult track, partly because it’s an exercise in self-indulgence. John Cale relates a short, horrific but deeply amusing story of a love-struck schmuck called Waldo Jeffers and his absurd, idiotic demise, while the Velvets play around a simple rhythm in the background. There’s no actual song as such, and while much music is called ‘experimental’ while the makers know perfectly well what they’re doing, "The Gift" is, in my opinion, experimental. Why? After you’ve got the joke the first time, you tend to crank down the vocal side of the stereo to listen to the band. Or, you skip the track entirely.
This was the first time I’d heard the track in years; what is so striking to me now is the controlled feedbacky viola, and the way in which the band members seem to be struggling against each other rather than with each other; you tend not to take everything in as Cale’s voice is a distraction - rather than, as I said, a song. I remember feeling a deep sense of frustration on my first listen to "The Gift", and I wonder how many other people felt the same way. Presumably enough to prompt the compilers to provide two more versions on the mono disc - one without the vocal, one just the vocal alone…
For my money, however, it is "Lady Godiva’s Operation" which I find the most awkward song. It feels somehow either overworked or overwrought, despite having a very simple premise: it’s one of Cale’s, I suspect, with a medieval-y touch. I think what irks me, personally, is that it’s a folk song bolted on to a more modern squall, with a tension which builds but never really gets to make a point. I mean, it’s good, but too awkward really. Now, I know some of this is deliberately the case, the band were trying things out. But for the first time on a Velvets record the experiment does not, in my opinion, work at all. One assumes that the clash of Cale/Reed egos have taken the song’s purpose and and ruined it with overcomplication. One of those songs you play to a workshop as a demonstration of technique befouling a song.
The original Side One ends with "Here She Comes Now", and yes, it is a pun, rather more down to earth compared with Love’s "She Comes in Colours". The gentle lope and the drawling, sardonic lyric ("if she ever comes now now") is both amusing and light-hearted. It’s a genuinely beautiful song; Cale’s viola adding a blushing depth and poignance. It’s also the only song they could really use as a single.
The original Side Two begins, apparently, half-way through "I Heard Her Call My Name", so abruptly does the song roar into our heads. Another slamming, powerful, unbearable bloody racket. This is the stuff of legend, really. 1968. Sod the Lizard King, this is the blood and gore of dictatorship.
Yes, I still recall the first time I heard this side … "and then my mind split open", followed by a scathing, serrated guitar solo from Reed - a stylisation which Robert Quine, already a huge fan, would adopt some 10 years later with Richard Hell.
Everything has a beginning, and Fricke’s liner notes record how "Reed would hear saxophonist Ornette Coleman and his revolutionary group at the Five Spot, standing outside to listen because he could not afford to go in. ‘I wanted to play guitar like that,’ Reed says. ‘I used the distortion to connect the notes, so you didn’t hear me hesitating and thinking.’’
The moment where the bass steps away and the Morrison’s guitar and Tucker’s drums pound like demons on a tin roof while Reed squeals and spits shards everywhere… if I were going to say anywhere in the Velvets’ vinyl catalogue, that "this is where punk had it’s birthplace", it would be here, and of course in the next song.
But at least two songs on "White Light/ White Heat" prefigured "Sister Ray"s brawl for dominance;"I Heard Her Call My Name", with its furious, sulphuric sonics, and "Lady Godiva’s Operation". Listening to it all over again, it’s like watching some sort of Violent Inevitable.
"Sister Ray’" in case you’ve not heard, is a song hammered out in one take, each member of the band struggling to be heard through walls of fuzzing, squalling haze. First one instrument is suddenly so clear you can barely hear anything else, then it sounds as if someone’s rammed up their own instrument. All the while Mo Tucker pounds on, a metonym for determined savagery.
It starts out fairly simply, a mid-paced thumping drunken robot, with Reed’s not entirely serious lyric ("too busy sucking on my ding dong") overshadowed by sudden bursts, swarms, landslides of fuzz, bass burr and god alone knows what. Not to go into this in detail, because you really need to experience this for yourself, the contrast between Reed’s vocal and the seething, urgent skronk … it doesn’t take long before we’re wondering if that is indeed an organ feeding back like a factory fire. Are they working to drown each other out? They come and go, flowing in and out of sync. It’s a virtuoso performance, sheer emotion and pent-up angst spilling out of speakers like a 40-year-old virgin’s frustration.
For my money, "Sister Ray" is one of the most telling musical expressions I’ve ever heard. Just over 17 minutes of passion, with a brilliantly controlled crash landing. If you don’t get it, you probably never will, simple as that. Again, if you want to point at any one record which could reasonably be described as the template for the new wave… it’s "White Light/ White Heat", hands down. The Saints may have been the Most Primitive Band in the World in 1975, but in 1967, it was the Velvets.
As an album, then, "White Light/ White Heat" is something of an oddity: unspeakably violent, yet funny, tender and moving. Despite the album’s many champions, what we have here is profoundly uneven, if not downright lopsided. That’s not to say it’s not a groundbreaking, brilliant work of art. Just that it’s not an album you can play every day, or all the way through each time you pull it out. There’s a distinct air of contrary vindictiveness to the selection of the tracks, to their delivery. They knew they were beyond the pale, and they were determined to rub our noses in it. That said, the record company, according to Fricke; "everything we did, it came out. No-one censured it. Because no-one listened to it.’’ Also, I’d add that "White Light/ White Heat" simply doesn’t sound as if it was recorded in the 1960s.
Always assuming, of course, that people would actually buy the thing. Me, I taped my favourite songs and gleefully played them very loud indeed. In hindsight, you can hear Suicide, Television, Richard Hell and the Voidoids, the Lounge Lizards, hell the entire crop of No Wave groups, the Stooges and a raft of other bands forming in the Velvets’ laid-back savage wake. I find myself wondering whether the Krautrock bands drew inspiration from it.
But back in early ’68, that shiny all-black cover was a deeply negating, confronting decision. It’s almost as if the band wanted to cause people to cross to the other side of the street, rather than pick up their new lp and lower the needle. Not so much "Five Years Ahead of My Time", as beyond their era.
You can hear why the alternate take of "I Heard Her Call My Name" was left on the shelf - it’s not quite as heart-stopping as the one chosen. That said, once more you can hear the beginnings of punk rock guitar as played today, as played in 1976. Extraordinary, really, particularly that cat-peeling last break while Mo determinedly hammers away, forcing the song onwards. It’s like a little war between them, then the bass barges in and the song collapses like a punch in the face.
What follows are the last remaining tracks recorded with John Cale before his departure in March 1968. We have two versions of "Hey Mr Rain" (Version One turned up on "Peel Slowly"); the second version is bigger, longer, and heads down a rather different path - you really get a feel for the scope that Cale’s viola lends the band.
The instrumental version of "Guess I’m Falling in Love" (perhaps Lou was never able to lay the vocal down) is a bit lo-fi but still fabulous; and there’s the rather bonkers "Temptation Inside Your Heart" which sounds like a parody of a pop song - those of us already familiar with this gem will be delighted at the lack of crackle and scratch on this one. Reed’s jovial mood is wonderful to behold. Electricity comes from other planets!
"Stephanie Says" was good enough for a Reed solo LP, and of course it’s a cracker here, gloriously under-stated. In a parallel universe it would’ve been one of the Velvets’ many hits. Oh, and there’s an early, slightly slower, loping version of "Beginning to See the Light", which the band later honed into another live juggernaut.
Sure, "Peel Slowly" showcased many of these tracks (though its third disc comes across as fairly clumsy, with the clutch of early demos preceding the "White Light/ White Heat" album). The deluxe box’s selection of tracks is probably the best snapshot of the band at this time; the range and quality of the Velvets is nothing short of incredible; the first disc here is effectively a brilliant double lp (there’s no dud songs at all).
And finally, Disc Two (Mono Version).
Well, apart from "The Gift", I prefer this version to the stereo, simply for sheer immediacy and power. Certainly a few aspects of the mono sound slur a little over some of the niceties of the stereo, but … nah. This is the recording I prefer.
The last two songs still fuck you up big time. Brilliant stuff. Mad jackhammer and scraping yowling creatures… fantastic.
Honestly, in a time where bands seemed to be either reacting to or against bands like the Stones, the Who, the Beatles, the Kinks and the Beach Boys… there really were few outfits who seemed to effortlessly blot out the entire 6ts zeitgeist, who seemed to have been beamed down from some other reality. Sure, there was the German thing bubbling up, but… there was nothing, no-one with such a broad palette, with such brutality, prettiness, sensitivity as this.
As for the extra tracks, White Light/ White Heat (mono single); Here She Comes Now (mono single) and The Gift (isolated vocal, and instrumental only, versions) … gentle listener, I skipped the se. They’re nice to have and maybe one day I’ll put them on a mixtape or two… but they’re not essential.
Like I said at the beginning… "Peel Slowly" is a great place to start. And if you don’t think you can justify this deluxe mega fauna box (of only three discs) just for the few extra tracks, the rest of the Gymnasium gig, and the mono version of the lp, well that’s fine. While idiots like me always clamour for more (one assumes that other gigs were located but not up to scratch sound-wise), for me this is the definitive version of "White Light/ White Heat".
TO BE CONTINUED